THE WORLD seems to have found teff.
Not bad for the smallest food grain on earth – one piece is the size of a grain of sand – and better yet when you consider that its name derives from the Amharic word yätäfä, which means “lost,” because each grain is so easy to lose if you drop it.
Some scholars have even speculated that because teff is so small, Ethiopians cultivated it before other grains: Why would a culture harvest such a tiny grain if it had alternatives? Others doubt this, saying that the hardiness and nutritional qualities of teff account for its ancient cultivation.
No longer just the unique grain needed to make Ethiopian injera, it’s now used as a gluten-free substitute for wheat, suitable for baking everything from cookies and muffins and cobblers to pancakes and pasta. Once available as a food product only from Ethiopia, entrepreneurs in the United States, Australia and Canada now grow and sell it, both for its grain and for its grassy stalk, which makes an excellent livestock forage.
About 300 species of teff grow on several continents, but Ethiopia hosts its greatest diversity. Eragrostis tef, the injera species, almost certainly originated there, although scholars can only speculate about how long ago that happened.
In the binomial nomenclature of science, the full name of the injera teff is Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter. This refers to Attilio Zuccagni, an 18th Century director of the botanical gardens in Florence who first grew teff in Europe, after the Scottish explore James Bruce brought some seeds back with him in 1773; and to Alessandro Trotter, who rediscovered Zuccagni’s 1775 thesis, Dissertazione Concernante Tef, in 1918, and who published articles about teff in 1918 and 1938.
During the centuries after Zuccagni’s work, teff came to be called by some other scientific names: There was Poa abyssinica (Jacq.), which refers to N.J. Jacquin, the 18th Century botanist who named it (Poaceae is the grass family); or Eragrostis abyssinica (Jacq.) Link, a variation of the current name, adding a reference to the German botanist Johann Heinrich Friedrich Link, who refined Jacquin’s classification. Trotter finally named it Eragrostis tef, and today its full name pays tribute to him and Zuccagni.
Eragrostis tef is the species of Eragrostis native to Ethiopia and grown now in America, although purists will say (and they’re probably right) that the version grown in North American soil doesn’t yield the same taste as native teff. It certainly doesn’t produce the same finished product: In Ethiopia, pieces of pure teff injera are thinner, larger and more sour than the mixed-grain versions found around the world. The diaspora has learned to make do, and New World connoisseurs don’t realize the difference.
In 1978, J.A. Ponti wrote that the ancient people who lived in today’s Ethiopia first cultivated teff from between 1000 and 4000 B.C., even before they cultivated barley. In 1866, the scholar Franz Unger claimed to have found teff seeds in an Egyptian pyramid c. 3359 B.C. and in a Jewish town c. 1300 B.C., but later scholars have said Unger was almost certainly mistaken.
The science of the late 20th Century has documented its history with more certainty, but no scholar will swear that teff existed in pre-Ethiopian, pre-Aksumite cultures much before the late first century A.D., about 2,000 years ago.
And this is one very nutritious grain. A 1997 study by the Biodiversity Institute of Ethiopia, conducted by Seyfu Ketema, found that white, or magna (pronounced “manya”) teff, the kind most popular for making injera, has 56 percent more calcium and 68 percent more iron than wheat. There are also red, black and mixed-seed varieties.
Teff is higher than wheat in a dozen amino acids, especially the essential lysine, and slightly higher in such nutrients as potassium, zinc and aluminum. It contains 11 percent protein, 80 percent complex carbohydrates, and almost four grams of fiber per ounce. Ethiopian athletes believe that teff makes them stronger in competition, so they’ll eat it as injera or as a porridge made from the whole grain.
Lost Crops of Africa, a book by the National Research Council, asserts that one large piece of injera a day supplies an Ethiopian with enough amino acids to sustain life without another protein source, and two pieces are “sufficient to ensure good health.”
Teff has as much food value, or even more, as grains like wheat, barley and maize “probably because it is always eaten in the whole-grain form: the germ and bran are consumed along with the endosperm,” the institute study says.
The largest grain crop in Ethiopia, its production exceeds the second most common crop, maize, by nearly 16 percent. No other African country grows teff as a significant crop. Some Ethiopians, especially in the country’s poorer western provinces, will eat it several times a day, according to Lost Crops of Africa. “Teff is so overwhelmingly important in Ethiopia,” the book asserts, “that its absence elsewhere is a mystery.”
But now, thanks in part to the rising awareness and popularity of Ethiopian food, teff is catching on, with commercial production taking place in several countries.
Teff grows on stalks of tall reedy grass, and after harvesting the tiny grain, Ethiopians use the leftover stalks as livestock forage. Farmers in the United States have now begun to adopt the plant for this purpose as well.
The name Eragrostis tef comes from Greek and means “grass of love” (eros/love, grostis/grass). Of the nearly 300 genera of Eragrostis, about 43 percent of them seem to have originated in Africa, the Biodiversity Institute reports, with others coming from Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas.
And by the way, magna isn’t the Amharic word meaning white. The name of this teff comes from an Amharic phrase, minigna nech new, meaning (roughly translated) “how white it is.” Although nech means white, the phrase’s first word, minigna, is a pronoun that’s been shortened and corrupted into magna to give this teff its name.
There are other kinds of teff – sergegna (a mix of white and brown), kay (red) and tiqur (black), for example – and Ethiopians harvest these for injera as well.
There’s also abolse teff, an improved variety being tested and studied in Ethiopia, with good results in early studies based upon its yield and baking quality. Some fields have mixed varieties, and in fact, such mixing often gives the grain its color. But magna teff is most prized, and it’s the kind Ethiopians export – when there isn’t a shortage and a government ban on exports.
Teff thrives from sea level to as high as 2,800 meters (about 1.7 miles), and in various temperatures, soils, terrains and rainfall conditions, although not in places with excessive rainfall. It’s so hearty and easy to grow under the right conditions that in Yemen, it’s called the “lazy man’s crop.” Farmers simply toss some seed into the ground after a flood, then return six weeks later to harvest the grain. Teff grows almost everywhere in Ethiopia, except for the eastern parts of the country, and especially in the vast eastern Hararge province, also known as the Ogaden, an arid, sparsely populated land made up largely of ethnic Somalis.
In English, the word almost always appears as teff rather than tef, although it needn’t: The word in Amharic consists of two letters, the first one a “t’e” (an explosive “t”), and the second one a simple “f.” In fact, just as we sometimes write t’ej to capture the sound of the explosive “t” at the beginning of the word, we might just as correctly write t’ef. But almost nobody does.
As for “injera,” the pioneering Ethiopian language scholar Wolf Leslau claims that the word derives from the ancient Ethio-Semitic verb gagära, which means “to bake.” The more contemporary linguist Chris Ehret says that can’t be so, basing his analysis on the way words and sounds have evolved in Ethio-Semitic languages, and he offers cangara as the older word from which injera sprung.
Teff production in the United States began in the 1980s thanks to the innovation of The Teff Co. of Caldwell, Idaho. The company has grown the grain for more than 25 years, marketing it to the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the U.S. as a product called Maskal Teff. The name means “cross,” and in Ethiopian Christianity, Maskal is a holiday celebrated in late September to mark the finding of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified.
The thriving enterprise is the work of Wayne Carlson, who became acquainted with Ethiopian food and culture in the early 1970s, when he lived and worked in Ethiopia as a biologist. That’s where he learned about teff, which Ethiopians preferred to use to make their injera when they could get it. Back home in Idaho, near the Oregon border, he found the climate and geology of the Snake River Valley area similar to Ethiopia’s fertile Rift Valley, a place where Ethiopians grow teff.
“Both are the result of major dynamics in the earth’s crust, resulting in massive basaltic lava flows and tectonic movements,” Carlson’s website explains. “And both are subjected to hot summers with intense sunlight.” So Carlson thought: “Why not change the direction of cultural influence? Rather than exporting ‘development’ practices to Ethiopia, why not take some wisdom from an ancient culture? From there,” his website says, “it was a small step to contact Ethiopians living in the American metropolitan areas and re-establish the relation between the Ethiopians and their favorite grain.”
He experimented at first with three varieties, and when the Ethiopian population of American began to grow significantly, he saw an investment opportunity. Now, he grows his teff in two varieties, brown and ivory. Teff Co. is privately owned, and Carlson doesn’t discuss its finances or his operation. But The Boston Globe reported in 2004 that he grows about two million pounds of teff grain annually, almost four times what the company grew about a decade earlier, and Dun & Bradstreet estimates its annual sales at $1.2 million. (Take a video tour of The Teff Co.)
In the 21st Century, the growing of teff spread to a good number of universities and their extension programs, which reach out to communities offering advice and guidance on agricultural matters.
Since then, teff grass has also become increasingly abundant as a forage for livestock, with more than a dozen states now growing it, usually for forage but sometimes to harvest the grain for making injera. You’ll find fields of teff in Oregon, Kansas, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Virginia, Illinois, Delaware – and soon, maybe in your neighbor’s backyard.
One such place is the 3,000-acre SS Farms, a company in Hydro, Okla., owned by the progressive commercial farmer Dean Smith, who looked into teff when he heard about it, learned that Ethiopians in the U.S. sometimes had a hard time finding it, and soon decided to grow some. He planted 700 acres in 2008 and sold it to Workinesh Spice Blends of St. Paul, Minn., which has made Ethiopian spices and sold them in the U.S. since 1978 (the first to do so). He also harvests the hay for fodder.
In a unique enterprise, the U.S. Agriculture Department provided a grant for a Kansas collective of black farmers, some descendants of African slaves, to grow teff. The effort led to a Civil Rights Achievement Award for a group that fostered the program.
Josh Coltrain, the project coordinator, said he had a hard time at first getting farmers to agree to plant teff with other grain prices so profitably high. In 2008, they planted 80 acres, mainly for the grain, although they looked for a market for the forage grass as well. They sold the grain to Workinesh, which was eager to get as much as they could. Coltrain says he learned about the company’s needs from Smith. Some ill-timed rains damaged productivity a bit, but even so, things went well, and in 2009, Coltrain says they doubled their acreage.
A Cornell University project began in 2002 with funding from the McKnight Foundation and in association with the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization. The scientists sought to increase their yield through genetic manipulation, and in 2006, Ethiopia’s National Variety Release Committee approved a new variety, quncho, for use in Ethiopia. This means more teff and better teff to feed Ethiopians.
One of the bigger companies now growing teff for its grain is Desert Oasis Teff, whose owners, Dave Eckert and John Getto, got some help when they started from Jay Davison of the University of Nevada cooperative extension. The company began to grow so much teff that for a while it sold its product to Teff Co., and it now sells to other teff distributors and injera makers around the country.
But most of the teff grown nationwide still turns into forage because farmers harvest the teff while it’s still green – that is, before it begins to produce the grain used in making injera. The grain heads may just be emerging when it’s cut, but there’s no profit in waiting: In Nebraska, for example, they get three yields from a field by planting the first in late May, the second in early August, and a third in mid-September. All are harvested just as grain heads emerge and well before the grain matures.
That’s not what happens on the teff fields that do business with Menkir Tamrat, a long-time Ethiopian-American who recently made a “very late career change” from his work in the high-tech field “to grow and process high-quality, local, sustainable ingredients for Ethiopian cuisine in the diaspora.” He now grows a variety of foods important to Ethiopian cuisine, and he also makes Yamatt Tej.
Using seeds imported from Ethiopia, his young but growing enterprise, which he calls Timeless Harvest, produces some varieties of Ethiopian gomen – what we know as collard greens and kale – to make the Ethiopian dish called gomen, and a few varieties of red pepper to make the spices berbere and mitmita. He also creates his own shiro, the delectable Ethiopian dish made from chick peas or yellow peas (among other legumes). And for a number of years now, he’s made Yamatt Tej, which you can find at some restaurants and markets in the San Francisco and Oakland areas.
Menkir’s enterprise dabbling in teff began in 2010 when he bought some in bulk from Desert Oasis Teff. He then grew his own field of organic teff in San Juan Bautista, Calif., during the summer of 2011 in collaboration with a farm there. That trial produced about 600 pounds of grain. In 2012, he tried to expand the project, planting a field of teff in Wheatland, Calif., late in the season. But because of equipment problems, he couldn’t harvest any of the grain – “a total loss of a 10-acre expansion effort,” he says.
So in 2013, Menkir “outsourced my organic teff production to my old reliable northern Nevada growers. They are very far down the learning curve when it comes to growing and harvesting the smallest grain known to man.”
An affable purist when it comes to his native culture’s cuisine, he took on the teff project both to serve a niche and to right a wrong.
“Pure teff injera is too important for the cuisine to pretend that other substitutes are acceptable,” Menkir says. “Wait until U.S. consumers learn that they have not been offered the very best the cuisine has to offer – and then we might see a Henry Ford moment for teff injera at last. The problem might be that the western taste bud may have traveled down the wrong injera path for too long to even care about the superiority of pure teff injera or to adjust to its very subtle sour flavor. They say clean air smells funny if all you have known is polluted air.”
But Menkir is more of an impresario than a baker. For a while, he helped an Ethiopian friend whose wife knew how to make pure teff injera, selling them the teff he got from Nevada. “He tried to make a go of it for about a year and for one reason or other, he never passed 1,200 injera per week at his peak and then threw in the towel.” He’s since found a couple “who produce some excellent teff injera, both white and brown,” and he has some ideas for bringing to the modern home a 12- to 14-inch mitad, the traditional Ethiopian clay device used to make injera. He’ll also continue his teff enterprise by importing teff from Nevada to California and selling it to businesses that want it – both Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian. But he’s never actually made injera himself – at least, not for the marketplace.
“In general, the U.S. consumer demands and is willing to pay for authentic dining experiences in any cuisine,” Menkir says. “Ethiopian food is no exception, and some day soon, someone will ask how many traditional restaurants in Addis would serve the injera served in Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. And we all know the answer is: zero. The field needs to be leveled by making pure teff injera part of the standard offering here, even if I may not be the guy selling it.”
University of Pittsburgh
Watch Injera: Food of Life, a look at teff and injera made by an American foodie.
Watch a video about growing teff a new way in Ethiopia.
Watch a video of Americans helping Ethiopian harvest teff in Ethiopia.